Alchemy

Purification of lye by filtration.  Lye was used to make soap, to clean clothes and instructions on its manufacture are found in the "Libellus de Alchimia" by pseudo-Albertus Magnus.  Unfortunately it doesn't seem to tell us what to do with it after it has been made.          

A droplet of water falling from the alembic.  I have pottery and glass alembics based upon medieval ones from pictures and excavations. 

Divine water, a red liquid made using sulphur and quicklime (Actually calcium polysulphides), recipes for which exist from the 3rd to 10th centuries AD and used by early alchemists for colouring metals.

Sulphur being sublimed in an alembic. It goes from yellow to red, and the sublimed sulphur left at the bottom of the alembic is dark red.  

 

 

 

 

 

Although I cannot turn lead into gold, and do not wish to poison myself or anyone watching, I can turn copper into silver, distill a variety of substances of use to an alchemist and manipulate authentic substances in the same way as a medieval alchemist would have done.  By demonstrating these techniques and discussing what they mean in the medieval context people will learn more about the theories of matter and the universe that were common at the time, and how how these concepts were of spiritual and secular importance. 

For example, metals are made up of sulphur and mercury, with each metal having a different quantity of the four elements within it.  Theoretically you can alter that balance of the four elements and produce a different metal, hence copper into gold.  A subject of obvious interest to many people...

The philosophers stone is perhaps the most famous name given to the substance which created such miracles, and a short summary of its manufacture and place in alchemy in medieval England can be found here.

Distillation of acids makes some wonderful colours and forms in the vapours within the alembic, which many people have taken to have higher meaning.  Distillation itself, during the period I am interested in, spread across Europe because of the various uses it had, such as the manufacture of rose water and aqua vitae, but the alchemists were always acknowledged as masters of it. 

 

Purification of substances was also a concern of alchemists, the same as it is for modern chemists.  The methods of purification which can be demonstrated are the grandparents of those used today and still bear some resemblance to what people will have seen in chemistry lessons at school. 

Using the actual substances and methods of alchemists can also bring home to people how basic chemistry is to their daily lives, and the simplicity of many everyday reactions and the dangers of what is used.  For example you can purchase very high strength sulphuric acid as drain cleaner.  Although it is well labelled, many people may not fully appreciate what it and other acids can do to materials, but my demonstrations allows a controlled appreciation of the reactions which can occur. 

The glassware and pottery I use resembles much of that in use at the time, and the purpose, advantages and disadvantages of each can be explained.  Moreover, such problems as the breaking of glassware can be shown (sometimes by accident); on one occasion it lost me a mornings work when the bottle I was boiling a liquid in broke, and the liquid turned into a great cloud of steam.  Such issues occur frequently in the more comprehendible alchemical texts of the late medieval period such as Thomas Norton’s Ordinal.

The domain name I use is an English version of the Latin for cleanliness, refined, clean.  Somehow it can also mean world, universe, but I have yet to work out exactly how.  Either way, it is present in “The mirror of Alchemy”, as published in English in the late 16th century, based upon an earlier pseudonymous work attributed to Roger Bacon (The earliest manuscripts of which are from the 15th century, rather later than Bacon):

“And for that gold is a perfect body, consisting of Argent-vive, red and clear, and of such a Sulphur, therefore we choose it not for the matter of our stone to the red Elixir, because it is so simply perfect, without artificial mundification, and so strongly digested and fed with a natural heat, that with our artificial fire, we are scarcely able to work on gold or silver, And though nature does perfect anything, yet she cannot thoroughly mundify, or perfect and purify it, because she simply works on that which she has.”

It also crops up in a 15th century text that is allegedly by Albertus Magnus, the internal evidence of it placing it in the 13/14th century:

Siccum vero quod facit corporum frangibili-tatem tollitur per incerationes et inbibitiones olei ex-tracti a sulphure et mercurio mundatis et preparatis”

Which roughly translated means “dry in fact in that manufactured body break- tatem through incineration and imbibing smell/ oil extract ? sulphur and mercury clean and prepare.”

Latin is somewhat difficult to translate when you were never taught it at school.  A frustrating number of manuscripts remain only in Latin and have never been translated.